The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Do They Think of Themselves?

Dear Unknown Friends:

A person valuable for the understanding of the human self—both one’s own dear self and selves that loom large internationally, leaders of nations—is a man seen as far away now: Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, of England (1769-1822). He is an illustration of what Aesthetic Realism explains: the one way we can like ourselves is through wanting to like the world, through wanting to know and see justly people and things that are not ourselves. That explanation is hugely different from what psychiatrists and counselors have been telling people about how to have self-esteem.

Castlereagh, who held major posts under George III and later, was, from one point of view, one of the most successful politicians who ever lived. Yet he illustrates these statements by Eli Siegel:

The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt....[Contempt] is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker.

Castlereagh Is Told Of

It was a note in G.B. Woods’ English Poetry and Prose of the Romantic Movement (1950), that made me want to comment on Castlereagh here. Identifying him briefly, Woods writes that Castlereagh

had been Secretary for Ireland and Secretary of War before he was appointed Foreign Secretary in 1812. At the time of the Irish rebellion in 1798, he was charged with encouraging inhuman punishments of the rebels; and during his whole administration he was noted for his contempt for all persons who did not belong to the aristocracy. In 1822 he committed suicide in a fit of insanity.

I was much affected by the use of the word contempt so close to insanity. Yes, Castlereagh is an instance of what Mr. Siegel was the philosopher to explain: “contempt [is] the cause of all mental disorder or disaster” (Self and World, p. 8).

Contempt—the feeling that in lessening another, one increases oneself—is very ordinary. But most persons are not in the position to have their contempt ruin millions of lives. Castlereagh was. “Encouraging inhuman punishments” of people comes from contempt for them; and the treatment he encouraged in Ireland—not only of “rebels” but of patriotically inclined citizens—gave rise to a famous statement in song: “They're hangin' men and women there for wearin' o' the green."

Then, as representative of England at the Congress of Vienna, Castlereagh was principal in making sure post-Napoleonic Europe returned to reactionary, monarchic rule. He worked to arrange a continent in which most human beings were without rights, would continue to be poor, and would exist to provide wealth for aristocrats.

Also, as the Columbia Encyclopedia notes, “he was chiefly blamed for repressive measures used to put down unrest in England.” He was seen as responsible for the “Peterloo Massacre” in Manchester. This was a deadly attack by cavalry on a peaceable meeting of 60,000 men, women, and children, held in behalf of more rights for the non-aristocratic classes.

Smoothness and Self-Loathing

I am writing on Castlereagh because it is necessary to see that those people who brutalize others loathe themselves for it, no matter how much aplomb they seem to show. They are self-despising within. A word used about Castlereagh by two important poets is smooth. If he were in office now, he would be on television giving the impression of savoir-faire and confidence. Here are lines of Byron about him, from Don Juan:

Cold-blooded, smooth-faced, placid miscreant!

Dabbling its sleek young hands in Erin’s gore,

And thus for wider carnage taught to pant,

Transferr’d to gorge upon a sister shore.

(That is—after causing Ireland to bleed, Castlereagh wanted his cruelty to take in more, and continued it in England, the “sister shore.")

Shelley has these lines in “The Mask of Anarchy: Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester":

I met Murder on the way—

He had a mask like Castlereagh;

Very smooth he looked, yet grim;

Seven bloodhounds followed him.

In issue 245 of the present journal, Mr. Siegel quotes that stanza. And I know that what he says of Shelley he saw as true of Byron too:

The poet Shelley is exceedingly useful because the general tendency of his writings is to lessen the horrible smooth power of contempt in human life. [In the lines just quoted, Shelley] is chiefly angry at man’s being able to put a good face on that which is unjust, unfeeling. A good face is now being put on the unjust and the unfeeling.

It is a beautiful fact that Castlereagh, who had seemed so smooth, was against his own being—and was driven to slit his throat with a penknife just before he was to embark on a diplomatic mission. When we see that unjust people who are immensely powerful have not convinced the depths of themselves, and that they detest what they are even as they seem slick and mighty, we are better able to oppose injustice. We can better oppose the injustice that may be in a nation, and also our own injustice, our contempt.

Ambition and Poetry

In this TRO, we include part of a paper that award-winning filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant Ken Kimmelman presented last summer at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What Is a Man’s Greatest Ambition?” Mr. Kimmelman’s public service films The Heart Knows Better and What Does a Person Deserve?, against racism and homelessness, have been seen on television by millions of Americans in recent years. Both are based on, and quote, statements by Eli Siegel. And the first, for which Mr. Kimmelman received an Emmy, is shown at Yankee Stadium before every game.

We publish too a poem by Eli Siegel which is philosophic, playful—and both thrilling and strict in its hopefulness. Mr. Siegel shows that emptiness has variety and therefore is fulness too. As he does, he is combating one of the most miserable, contemptuous states of mind: the sense of emptiness and nullity people can get to and use to despise the world. This poem is a musical exemplification of the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The poem has that respect for the world which was constant in Mr. Siegel, and which made him the most intelligent, kind, artistic, passionately just person I know of in all history.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Lightness of Heart:A Scientific Lesson

By Eli Siegel

It is hard to think of reality as ever so light.

Is the fuzz of a peach looking towards a cloud in unknown desert territory

As real as a block, the kind butchers use, on which, often, they leave their cleavers?

How light can reality be, and still be as much reality as an old safe, 1880, now in a cellar somewhere in Springfield, Illinois?

It is rather clear that lightness goes towards three darling sisters: Emptiness,

Nothingness, Space.

(The liveliest of these sisters is Space; but the three do not have heaviness at all.)

Yet, charmingly arranged by existence, emptiness is real too; so is nothingness; so is space.

How can I talk of nothingness without nothingness existing?

As soon as something is talked of, it is there, getting attention.

Emptiness could occupy one for a whole afternoon.

A room once was empty;

And it was empty of bibelots, charming little books that one can slip into one’s pocket with someone hardly noticing any interference with the smoothness of the pocket.

And there is emptiness of orange peels, which clearly is different from emptiness of bibelots.

But if you looked at the room I am considering, emptiness of bibelots and emptiness of orange peels looked exactly the same.

And there is emptiness of buttons, a specific kind of buttons, but not noticeable unless you insist on it.

And there is emptiness of fat, rotund apples, the kind that look a little like footballs, only you can’t play with them on a football field.

And there is the emptiness of one’s grandmother, for if she is not present in the room I am talking about, there is emptiness somewhat like the emptiness of orange peels.

Meantime, emptiness goes on, and is lighter than the lightest chemical element.

And isn’t it pleasing that this room has the emptiness of lead, once seen as the heaviest element, in the good old chemical days when an element was something you might have seen in a store or a home?

Another thing: there is a difference between nothingness and emptiness; and there is a difference between nothingness and space, and space and emptiness.

So why do we have three words about one thing?

The thing itself, representing that which opposes heaviness completely—this thing does not object to being given three names; would not object if other names were given to it. 

So we have the emptiness around a cloud in June weather, the kind that writers of New England were fond of.

We have the lightness of a chick’s feather in a warm early morning; but this, of course, scientifically and otherwise is not emptiness.

Chicks don’t get along on a physiological basis of emptiness.

And all this has to do with lightness of heart.

A person once said: “My heart is full; I feel like crying; but the tears will have light in them.

This is so because, while my heart is full, I was never so lighthearted.”

When a person is greatly happy, fulness of feeling is also lightheartedness.

This is why nothingness is friendly to heaviness and reality.

A truly happy person is a scientific lesson of great value;

For that person can say: “My heart is full, but how lighthearted I am.”

Science, with this declaration of the opposites, should take up the work from here.

Nothingness, emptiness, space are waiting, as is the possible greater lightheartedness of man.


Our Greatest Ambition

By Ken Kimmelman

Studying what Aesthetic Realism explains about ambition saved me from a life of torment.

I learned that I had two kinds of ambition. On the one hand, as a filmmaker I had an ambition based on respect: I wanted to make films that would have a good effect on people. However, I had another kind of ambition, hurtful to my life, though I deluded myself that I wasn’t ambitious at all. I told myself I was too good and sensitive to go panting after money, glory, approval. Meanwhile, I secretly wanted to be a big honcho in film, with everyone deferring to me.

In his lecture Mind and Ambition, Eli Siegel explains:

We have to show people we are better than they are because this is the one way we know of being sure of ourselves .... [But] 100,000 neighbors can applaud you and you can still feel like a heel .... The feeling we are all right deeply doesn’t come that easily. [TRO 468]

As a young man at the School of Art and Design, I was in competition with other students. Our cartooning teacher was the creator of a weekly comic strip that appeared in the Herald Tribune; I would flatter him, and he took me under his wing and would praise my drawings inordinately. Though I thought others in my class did better work than mine, I enjoyed feeling they envied me.

Without knowing this, Mr. Siegel said to me years later in an Aesthetic Realism lesson: “Let me put it this way: A boy goes to school. He has contempt for his classmates and thinks he can come to an arrangement with the teacher. Then he goes to work and this continues. Do you think that kind of thing has happened?” “Yes,” I said. And he asked: “Have you tried to have an in with the chief?"

That describes exactly what I did with a film producer I’ll call Barry, who hired me to design movie trailers for big Hollywood productions. I gave careful, imaginative thought to the trailers; but at the same time, I was terrifically impressed meeting Hollywood executives, directors, stars, and being taken out to the best restaurants. I became Barry’s wunderkind, was put in charge of these projects, got paid well, and had a huge sense of power spending large sums of money and having many people work for me, to whom I felt superior. Meanwhile, Barry acted as though he owned me and would scream and curse at me, sometimes in front of others. I felt like a weasel, but endured it because of the importance I got. I also felt increasingly that my coworkers were talking about me and plotting against me.

In the lesson, Mr. Siegel asked: “Do you wage a contest between yourself and everything?” I said, “Yes, I do.” And he explained: “There are two ways you can see people: [one is,] ‘You can add to my life’; and the other is, ‘I want to show I am better than you.’ What is more important—to be all you can be, or to beat out other people?"

I am eternally grateful to Mr. Siegel for enabling me to see what kind of ambition really represents me: not the ambition to beat out other people, but to know them, and have a good effect on them. Because of what I was learning in Aesthetic Realism classes, my life changed deeply and very happily. Instead of being in a war with others and imagining plots against me, I began to see people as having feelings and hopes that added to me. For example, at a later film job when a colleague of mine was treated unjustly and was forced to take legal action against our boss, even though I knew it might cost me my job I was glad to stand up for him and testify on his behalf, helping him win the case.

And Aesthetic Realism is enabling me to meet my true ambition as a filmmaker: to have the world better and people’s lives stronger through my work. I am proud to have produced films against racism, apartheid, homelessness and hunger, and to use my art to have the most important, kindest education in the world known.